Review: The Last of Us

The Last of Us is a new IP from Naughty Dog, and likely their last of this console generation. As far as the company’s work on the PlayStation 3 goes, it’s obvious that Uncharted is generally what they’ll be remembered for, and that experience with a similar style of play shows in spades in their work on this new title, so much so that, if you didn’t know Naughty Dog was behind The Last of Us, you would have a mere hour (or less) into playing the game.

The story in The Last of Us revolves around a mutated virus that is airborne and affects humans almost instantly. It changes behavior and, for all intents and purposes, changes them into zombies. I will admit, when I first heard that The Last of Us was a zombie game, I let out a very heavy, very audible sigh. Enough with the zombies already, people. However, in the first 15 minutes of this game I realized that this is going to be so much more than just another shoot-em-up, kill all the zombies-type of game. So much more.

After you jump through the intro bit – which, let me tell you, is probably one of the most frightening game intros I’ve ever played, and not in the way you think – you’re introduced to the world. Rather, what has become of the world since the infection took hold on a global scale. Our main protagonist, Joel, lives every day to fight for survival, and that includes securing weapons and other supplies for him and his friends. One of their shipments gets intercepted by a group called the Fireflies. They are considered a rebel group and a threat by the overly antagonistic and oppressive military, which holds control over major cities and “safe zones”, but could be, in another way, called freedom fighters by more common folk.

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To get the guns back, Joel and his friend seem to think doing an easy job for the Fireflies will suffice, so they agree to deliver some “cargo” to a group of Fireflies and get it moved out of the city. That “cargo” ends up being a 14-year-old girl by the name of Ellie. You can see where this is going, given what you know about the game already, right? They end up (grudgingly, at first) becoming a dynamic duo, and I mean that in more ways than one.

The characters really and truly take center stage here. Many people compare this game to Uncharted, and compare Joel to Nathan Drake. This is a bit of a wrong comparison. The problem in comparing the two is they are almost, in every way imaginable, completely different. At first glance, maybe not, but consider the events in the games and how they relate to changing and shaping the character’s attitudes and actions throughout the rest of the story. If you think about it, Joel and Nathan are absolutely nothing alike.

What happens to Joel in the first bit of the game really, truly changes his life, his outlook on his life and the world around him, and shapes his interactions with Ellie throughout the entirety of the story. Ellie is a brash, impatient teenager who has issues (at first) meshing with Joel’s wiser, more laid back attitude, but this is part of what makes the two really click The pure pleasure of hearing their interactions throughout the course of the game truly speaks to how well this pair is written and acted. This, my friends, is why you need to play this game. But, more on that later.

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As I moved in to the meatier parts of the game, I realized that the gameplay itself was pretty “standard”. By that, I mean very polished, very smooth, very intuitive and functional, “Naughty Dog standard”. There’s nothing truly innovative about it, but there doesn’t have to be. Innovation is overrated, especially when a developer has refined their art into the absolutely stellar and robust action gameplay that exists in The Last of Us.

Controlling Joel is a breeze, and every aspect of the game – from the platforming bits to the gunfights – is done with precision to such a degree that other developers should be looking at this game to give them ideas for their own titles. In continuing the comparison to Uncharted, there is less serious platforming and puzzles and a bit more gun play, but what is included in the gameplay isn’t the point, nor is it a compelling reason to play this game. If all you’re here for is to shoot at zombies and run across a post-apocalyptic landscape – regardless how beautiful it is – then you’re here for the wrong reasons.

Beyond that, the zombies aren’t even your worst enemy in the game. From the beginning, things are set up to really make the militant ruling faction really grate at you and they – not necessarily the zombies or the virus itself – are seemingly always the ones who get in the way of your ultimate goal. The infected humans are more of an annoyance. It’s a lot like dealing with a mosquito while you’re in a gunfight, so to speak.

You have a lot of tools to help you out on your journey, that’s for sure. From automatic weapons to more crude (yet still highly functional) methods to take out or distract your enemies, you have a wide range of choice. There’s nothing like breaking a bottle over some unsuspecting soldier’s head like in the movies, or tossing a brick in the opposite direction you want to move just to keep the soldier’s attention off of you and your companion.

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Stealth plays a huge part in the gameplay, as well, and more often than not, avoiding confrontations with large numbers of baddies altogether is the smoothest way to go. But, there are generally any number of ways you can deal with every encounter, from going in guns blazing, to sneaking up behind each soldier and putting the clamp down around their throat, and this is really what makes the gameplay in The Last of Us so stellar – you have choices and, while it is linear in a way, it doesn’t feel like it is.

Unfortunately, while stealth can be a huge part of the game, there are segments where you just can’t. You will grow to hate and fear Clickers, similar to how we all grew to hate and fear Big Daddies in BioShock. It’s that sort of twisted interest that will draw you to them, yet send you screaming like a little girl at the same time.

The AI in this game is probably some of the best I’ve seen. Enemies are smart, sometimes too smart – they dodge, hide, take their time, stealthily sneak up on you, distract you, confuse you and do just about everything they can to get at you or lure you to them. Each encounter can be a challenge – perhaps some more-so than others, depending on the way you, as the player, approach each situation, and that all adds to the feeling of just needing to simply survive above all else.

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The reasons you should play this game are astronomical in number, but the top ones are characters and story, as I alluded to earlier. What’s most important here, I feel, is the spectrum of emotions this game runs you through. Most prominently, I feel overwhelming loss – both on a personal level with the characters, as well as looking at the world around them, which is a huge part of immersing you into this story and putting yourselves in the shoes of both Joel and Ellie.

This isn’t a story about having an adventure, like Uncharted was. This is the story of two people who are getting to know each other in sort of a father/daughter way and simply trying to survive, and that’s what much of the tone of the game feels like. Each fight feels like struggle, each personal victory a triumph.

The voice acting is superb, probably the best I’ve heard in a video game ever. The audio has a way to tie story points together, and string along emotions and feelings that the characters are experiencing so they can, in some small way, be experienced by the person with the controller, as well. The fighting, like the audio, is a way of connecting two different parts of the character story together, or making sure everything meshes. While it isn’t quite an annoyance, like the infected humans I mentioned earlier, it does still feel like something you have to do to get to the parts of this game that really matter.

Replay value of games these days is judged along with everything else, but I feel, in this case, that is an unfair way of looking at things. There is no reason to play The Last of Us more than once, unless you’re the type to want to play on the hardest difficulty. The story doesn’t change, the characters don’t change. There may be a piece or two of new dialog if you charge into a situation instead of taking out your opponents quietly, but that’s about it. The point is not to replay, the point is to spend these 20-ish hours experiencing a story.

Once you’ve experienced the story and the characters with one play-through, the experience almost seems like it would diminish if you play through it again. It feels like you’d possibly get desensitized to what really makes this game tick.

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Far be it for me to tell you, the players, how to play a game you buy with your own hard-earned cash – and I know you want to get the most out of your money – but this is just the way I view it. It’s sort of like Heavy Rain, in a way. I know Heavy Rain had multiple endings, but it feels, to me, it would diminish what the game is trying to do if I were to play through it again. I experienced it and I loved it and I “got it”. That’s what counts – the experience – not how many times I can play through it and on what difficulty levels.

The Last of Us is so much more than the sum of its parts. At its core, it’s a personal story of loss and, possibly, a bit of redemption. It’s a story of compassion in a harsh, unforgiving world. It’s about visceral survival instincts that all of us were created with to just get by in extreme situations. It’s about the story and the characters, everything else is just icing on the cake. However, all parts work in an excellent way together and meld into what I would call the perfect wrap up to a wonderful generation of games from Naughty Dog. If it was earlier in this generation I’d call The Last of Us a system seller (it still might be for some people if they don’t already own a PS3). You owe it to yourself to experience this game. Just do it. Go. Now.

Update: As you may have noticed, I mentioned nothing about the multiplayer aspects of The Last of Us in the review. I completed the game earlier this week and, unfortunately, I can’t redeem the included online pass code until launch day, which is tomorrow.

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